Harvard Business review

How to Pace Yourself at Work While Pregnant

In April this year, my book coauthor Mollie and I were scheduled to appear on Good Morning America to promote our new book, Big Feelings.

The weeks leading up to the launch had been a whirlwind of pitching, taking interviews, recording podcasts, and executing a complex, multi-channel marketing strategy. On top of all that, we were also both working full-time jobs. And on top of that, I was six months pregnant.

Our call time was 5:45 AM. The night before our slated interview, my nerves vibrated in anticipation. Each time I managed to drift off to sleep, I would startle awake 30 minutes later. When my alarm went off at 4:30 AM, I had already been up for over an hour.

At the studio, a small team applied my makeup and curled my hair, then ushered me to a seat next to Mollie. I was starting to feel slightly nauseated, but I tried to shrug off the acidity in my stomach. I figured it was nerves and would settle once the interview began.

“We’ll be live in two minutes,” a producer informed us as she rushed by. I took a deep breath, and the room tilted ominously. Dark spots clouded my vision. Mollie was saying something, but I couldn’t hear her over the blood pounding in my ears.

“I’m going to pass out,” I announced in a panic. Instinctually, I slid off my chair and laid on the ground. The producer rushed over to hand me a granola bar, which I inhaled, desperately hoping it would make me feel better. It didn’t help. I ended up crawling off the set, and Mollie filmed the segment by herself. I spent the rest of the day in bed with a nurse calling me to check in every few hours.

I have almost always been able to power through extremely busy weeks. When I got pregnant, I told myself nothing had to change. I could take on as much as I always had; I would just be pregnant.

Things didn’t work out that way.

Here are five practices I put in place to better pace myself, and that I wish I had embraced from the start. Depending on your organization and manager, you may not be able to implement all of them, but my hope is that these tips will inspire you to take a step back and set better boundaries for yourself where you can.

Be honest with yourself

It took me a (too) long time to accept that pregnancy came with new physical limitations. I’ve always prided myself as being someone who could do it all. While I’d learned not to pull all-nighters, go months without taking any time off, or fill every weekday with back-to-back meetings, I was still able to balance both a full-time job and a jam-packed schedule of side projects. I was proud of that ability, and it felt crucial to my identity to continue to show up in the same way that I always had, even if I was pregnant.

The failed Good Morning America appearance was my first sign that things would have to change. Once I hit the third trimester, I struggled with severe insomnia that left me frustrated and forgetful. I eventually had to tell my team and my manager, then push my early-morning meetings back a few hours so I had the option of catching up on sleep.

Research shows it’s often easier for women to advocate for others than for themselves, so I also started to run opportunities and even my calendar by friends and trusted colleagues before making commitments. They would encourage me to slow down and not feel guilty about it.

Drop the absolutes

I used to have a tendency to think in extremes. For example, if a sales director at my job flagged to me that an event or webinar would help them generate new business, I felt compelled to immediately see how I could make it happen, or thought I had to turn them down entirely. I could either show up at 100%, or it wasn’t worth showing up at all.

Now I look for compromises. In the sales director example, I look at the current content calendar to see when we might be able to add in a webinar, then break it up into several tasks, and delegate as much as I can. This approach has also made me a better manager. When challenges arose, I used to jump in with solutions. I now ask for members of my team to first come up with a few options on their own, which we then discuss together. By taking a step back, I better help my team learn and grow.

Conduct a weekly (or daily) calendar audit

One of the most frustrating aspects of pregnancy has been that how I feel changes from one day to the next. Some mornings, I wake up well-rested and full of energy. On other days, I’m groggy and a sciatica flare up  (pain that radiates through my back and legs) makes it hard for me to sit at my desk for more than a few hours.

To ensure that I’m taking care of myself — and that I’m not dropping anything at work — I reassess my calendar on a regular basis. Every Sunday night, I go through my schedule for the coming week and identify days that seem particularly busy or draining. If I see that I have a full day’s worth of back-to-back meetings, I’ll find a few that I can address via email, push to another week, or turn into a phone call instead of a video call.

If I start to feel under the weather, I’ll take a moment to make sure I’m not putting unnecessary pressure on myself. For example, I’ll review upcoming deadlines and revisit my to-do list to see if there are any non-urgent, non-important tasks I can de-prioritize. Often, I can also push an internal deadline back a day or two to give myself and my team some more breathing room. If you don’t have this kind of schedule flexibility, see if there are ways you can briefly reset between meetings, or look for upcoming social events you can skip or push to another weekend.

Set three daily goals — then give yourself grace

The first thing I do when I get to my computer each morning is write down the three work-related tasks I want to accomplish that day. I make sure my list is achievable given my schedule and physical health. For example, if I’m in meetings for most of the day, one of my tasks might be, “Prepare for your 1:1 at 2 PM.” I also aim to be as specific and realistic as possible. Rather than, “Work on the client presentation,” which doesn’t have a clear end point, I write, “Create a complete first draft of the client presentation.”

I then review the list and ask myself, “If I finish these tasks, will I have made measurable progress toward important goals?” I’ve found that when my answer is yes, I end the day feeling accomplished and have a much easier time disconnecting from work and giving myself the time I need to rest and recharge.

Remember that every “yes” involves a “no”

Saying no is hard, especially when you’re used to being able to say yes. The best advice I’ve received on how to build your boundary-setting muscles is to consider the opportunity cost of taking on a new request.

The next time you’re on the brink of saying yes, pause. Ask yourself:

  • If I say yes, what do I gain?
  • If I do this, what will I not be able to do instead?
  • If I say no, what’s the worst thing that would happen?

Once I’m ready to move forward with a no, I come up with two phrases: one to say to the other person, and one to say to myself. For example, when I decline an invitation from a colleague, I might say, “I’d love to, but I need to take it easier this week. How about later in the month?” and tell myself, “Saying no to this right now does not make me a bad coworker. It makes me a human who needs rest.”

Being forced to work through new limitations takes practice and patience. These steps have helped me give myself grace and better invest in my well-being.

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